5 Fun Facts about Florenz Ziegfeld
Our recent book, Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) tells the story of the real Ziegfeld—someone quite different from the great impresario as portrayed by William Powell in the 1936 Oscar-winning biopic. We all know Ziegfeld produced the Follies, a series of elaborate musical and comedy revues that summon mental pictures of chorines descending twirling staircases while balancing tall feathery ornaments atop their heads. Some of us know Ziegfeld produced Show Boat, the groundbreaking story musical that was the first to tackle social issues such as misogyny and use song as an integral plot devise. Less is known about Florenz Ziegfeld the man. His work overshadowed him, but in reality, he was just as larger-than-life as his shows. He too wanted to be a star—a mysterious one that everyone knows but who is rarely seen.
Here are just five of the hundreds of surprising facts we unveil in our book about the Great Ziegfeld:
1) Ziegfeld ran away with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show when he was fifteen. He allegedly won a shooting contest with Annie Oakley! For his entire life Ziegfeld preferred rusticity to refined pursuits. His daughter, Patricia stated he was in his element when camping, stubble-faced, as he cooked beans or scrambled eggs over a fire.
Ziegfeld loved the Wild West and even made Western themed shows, namely “Whoopee” (1927) starring Eddie Cantor
2) Ziegfeld was never legally married to his first wife, Anna Held (portrayed so memorably by Luise Rainier in The Great Ziegfeld). Anna was not yet divorced at the time she and Ziegfeld declared themselves man and wife. They were together for sixteen years, thus making them common law husband and wife.
3) Ziegfeld was a superstitious man with many phobias. Among the most bizarre of his fears were red roses, dwarves, and clocks. He also demanded that any rose in his garden that showed signs of wilting be cut immediately. This all tied into his fear of death; he never attended funerals, not even that of Anna Held.
4) Ziegfeld was not a peddler of glorified girly shows; he was quite a family man. After the birth of his daughter in 1916, he made his shows more family friendly. When his beloved friend and favorite Follies star, Will Rogers, refused to appear in a show with nudity in it, Ziegfeld never again had any of his chorines in a state of undress.
A sampling of Ziegfeld Girls dressed in comparatively modest attire. The top photo shows Will Rogers in the middle of some glorified girls.
5) Ziegfeld’s marriage to Billie Burke (best known for her role as Glinda the Good Witch) was a tempestuous one. Billie was no Myrna Loy (who portrayed her as a patient and somewhat bland wife in The Great Ziegfeld). When Ziegfeld gambled or when she suspected him of infidelity, she went into what she called “red-headed rages.” She once hit him over the head with a soup ladle. Rather than infuriate him, it made him laugh and he swept her into his arms, carrying her upstairs Rhett Butler-style. She admitted she laughed at that point, too.
We hope at least one of these facts have prompted chuckles, raised eyebrows, or gasps from readers at the Classic Movie Hub. Ziegfeld loved to shock his audiences — and those who knew him behind the scenes!
— Sara and Cynthia Brideson for Classic Movie Hub
Sara and Cynthia Brideson are avid classic movie fans, and twin authors of Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer and Also Starring: Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965. They also are currently working on comprehensive biographies of Gene Kelly and Margaret Sullavan. You can follow them on twitter at @saraandcynthia or like them on Facebook at Cynthia and Sara Brideson.